SATURDAY B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “The Unknown World” (1951)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 8/22/09

As with all good-hearted people who came of age in the 70s or early 80s before cable was ubiquitous, my Saturday afternoons were solidly anchored to my local Monster Chiller Horror Theater show. Every week some semi-comedic host would tell bad jokes or engage in sub-stooges-level sketch comedy while framing a particularly crappy horror or SF movie. I drifted away from this in the 80s when I discovered that having long hair and a guitar meant that women would let me touch them, but as soon as I was out of college I discovered MST3K and once again my life was back on its normal course. Alas, those days are gone, and while I don’t wake up in the night sweating or screaming from the lack of any International Pictures fare in my viewing schedule, I have gradually become aware that…something…is missing from my Saturday afternoons.

Now, it’s a well-known scientific fact that doctors recommend at least fifty Cormans of bad films per month as part of your average person’s visual diet, and without that you’ll eventually develop health problems. The symptoms are mild at first - similar to seasonal dissonance - but if these early signs are left untreated the progressive symptoms include the inability to recognize jokes in conversation, an inability to recognize the one neat idea or cool element an otherwise crap film may have in it, difficulty scheduling one’s recreational time, and ultimately - in the worst case situations - ballooning weight and Star Trek Fandom may result. Obviously, at my age, I’ve got to take my health seriously which is why I’ve started engaging on a “Bad Movie” supplement to my normal visual diet. (Under my doctor’s supervision, of course. He’s the one who brings the popcorn.)

PLAY BY PLAY:

We start out with a faux film reel (“Filmreel News”) telling the story of Dr. Jeremiah Morely, who predicts the world will end in Nuclear War. Since it’s 1951, that seems a fair bet. Also the guy is named “Jeremiah,” which is all you really need to be seen as a prophet of doom. Morely starts the “Society for the Preservation of Humanity,” along with several of his friends, one of whom is even a chick! There’s the deposed German Scientist guy, the Marine, the…uhm…guy who does stuff…the other guy who…uhm…does other stuff, the chick who…uhm…has something to do with rabbits - it’s all a bit unclear, but we’re told she’s an ardent feminist - and Dr. Morely himself. I don’t want to accuse these guys of being ciphers, but in this film’s sprawling cast of almost eight people, it’s just sort of hard to keep them all straight. Their plan is that the earth has big empty caves in it where people can live in peace and suburban prosperity with cars and TVs and whatnot in the event of a Nuclear War. Otherwise, when the war breaks out we’ll all go extinct. Not surprisingly, pretty much everyone in the world finds this a spectacularly piss-poor plan, and the society ultimately folds as the newsreel ends.

Then - psych - we find the entire society *Watching* the newsreel. A spoiled rich kid has put it together, and wants to fund their expedition “Just for kicks,” assuming they’ll take him along. This is an entirely reasonable thing for him to ask, but they treat him like he just took a crap in their living room for even asking such a thing. They agree, however. They have no other choice.

They’re taken to the dormant, nonexistent-yet-real-sounding Alaskan volcano of “Neleh” (“Helen” spelled backwards. Somebody’s wife, I expect) and they load in to their not-at-all amazing Drill Car, which looks a bit like a star-nosed mole with Cadillac tail fins, and start up the side of the volcano. This takes a looooooong time. Then they camp for the night, and start down the volcano on the inside, which, again, takes a loooooooooong time and is deadly dull. I have to confess, until they got to Neleh, I was kind of digging the movie. It had a spry style that overcame the inherently stupid premise, or at least made me squint enough to overlook the inherently stupid premise.

Anyway, we’re treated to scenes of them driving in the star-nosed-mole mobile, then them walking ahead of it, and occasionally bitching at Rich Kid for being rich and vapid enough to fund their little soirée. Seriously: these arguments make no sense whatsoever. “How dare you give us money for scientific research that we would be unable to carry on without you! How dare you, indeed!” I don’t get it. I thought scientists were supposed to be smart.

With little incident they work their way further and further down, then start to get mopey. Rich Kid correctly identifies it as separation from the rest of humanity, which prompts The Guy Who Does Stuff to go in to a rambling speech about how humanity are sheep, and it’s the efforts of one man that makes anything get done, and how he’s in charge, see, and they need to listen to him. He and The Other Guy Who Does Stuff are then immediately killed by poison gas.

Ok, I kind of thought that was going somewhere, but I guess not. Uhm…congratulations for pulling the wool over my eyes like that, guys.

Anyway, they bury the two other guys and head on. Then they discover Rich Kid allowed the water supply to get contaminated, so they spend a Loooooooong time wandering around looking for water while Marine and Rich Kid argue and occasionally fight. Ultimately they find a steam-vent which they burst, and that causes the cavern to fill. The steam condenses and everyone rushes around drinking water dripping off of stuff. Then The Chick has possibly the most boring drug-trip incident ever, and collapses. Is she dead? Who can tell. They look at her, then wander off to discuss whether they should go on or not. Two are for turning back, two are for going on. Then The Chick - who’s evidently not dead - says ‘go on’ so they do.

They come to a really big cavern with cave fish, cave pearls, and cave flowers, which isn’t so bad, really, but then they get inexplicably mopey again, and so they go on. The hit an underground river, which causes them to surface in an underground sea in a massive underground cave which is pretty much indistinguishable from Lake Havisu and the surrounding environs. Here they live happily, 1600 miles down, enjoying their life until The Chick’s rabbits die, and they realize that everything born in the inner world is inexplicably sterile. This depresses everyone, and they realize that they’ve been on a fool’s errand all along - “You can’t fix your troubles by hiding in a hole in the ground” - The Chick says, and thank you for that! I’ve been thinking that since the first minutes of the film. Then a lightning storm strikes, and the inner world evidently collapses. The German, The Chick, and Rich Kid make it back to the Star Nosed Mole, but Morely stays behind to die.

The Star Nosed Mole Mobile sinks to the bottom of…well, the earth, really. They’re 2500 miles down, but then they hit a current (What?) and surface in Polynesia.

THE END

OBSERVATIONS

Despite it’s overwhelming ineptitude in nearly every area imaginable, this movie is actually meant to be taken seriously. The whole notion of “Hiding in a hole in the ground” while the world goes to hell is obviously intended as a metaphoric version of the whole “Bomb Shelter” craze from the early cold war, and, in a larger sense, it’s a commentary on the notion of running away from our troubles rather than facing them head on. Noble idea, but I’m not sure why, exactly, they chose this venue with which to tell it.

I *will* say in their defense that having the whole movie be a red herring was strangely refreshing. It’s rare that we see a bunch of people with a crazy plan that they’re steadfastly dedicated to, and then triumph in the end only to find out that, yeah, the plan was pretty crazy to begin with, you’ve all been wasting your time, and four people died for no damn reason whatsoever. It’s not a Hollywood ending, and I kind of liked it for that. Not enough to sit through this turd ever again, but I give ‘em pointers for trying something different.

Lots of bad science in here, but none of it the fun kind that I’m willing to overlook. In essence, they say that there are huge caverns inside the earth hundreds of miles across. There aren’t. They also say that the earth is not molten rock, in fact the core is cooler than the surface. Of course a drill-car wouldn’t work like they show it here, and, well, suffice it to say that everything even remotely scientific that they mention in the film is spectacularly stupid. They’re playing around with the old “Hollow Earth” theory, however, first popularized by Sir Edmund Halley (of Comet fame), and later used as a dramatic locus for such yarns as Pellucidar, The Manuscript of Mr. Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, The Hollow World, and a bunch of crazy Nazi conspiracy theories.

One thing in particular that kept annoying me about the film was that Rich Kid is repeatedly said to be “Just a kid” and “Too young” and so on. In fact, he looks like he’s pushing 40, and when I looked him up he turned out to be 41.

Of course having been a kid in the 70s/80s, you’d be hard pressed to find some old SF movie that I haven’t already seen a dozen times over. In this case, I was actually excited to see this film since I’d never heard of it before, but it was pretty horrible. This gives me reason to believe that probably any bad SF films from the era that I *haven’t* seen are probably so bad that there’s good reason why I’ve never heard of ‘em: they’re unwatchable. This is a sobering premise, and one I’m not thrilled about.

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for today.

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